The people of Skalmarnes took several moments of silence to process Erik’s ridiculous choice of champion, and then erupted into laughter. The sheer boldness of Erik’s haughty dismissal of Thyge filled them with pride, whether earned or not.
Thyge Jormundsson’s face grew an even deeper shade of red. A few of his fellow warriors from Fagradalr let their hands stray to their sword hilts, though none drew.
Jarl Magnus, though, simply stared at Erik with cold, calculating eyes during all this. Erik returned his stare with a formal little nod.
Finally, the Jarl then raised his voice. “As my son has spoken, so shall it be. We will hazel the field in three days.”
I wasn’t sure what the Jarl meant by “hazelling the field,” but the general sense of my doom was clear.
“Until then,” the Jarl continued, “the hospitality of Skalmarnes is offered to our brothers from Fagradalr.” He paused, then asked, “Is it accepted?”
Thyge’s face contorted in anger. He bit his lower lip for a moment and took a deep breath. “Of course,” he spat, almost as though he choked on the words. “I accept your hospitality, for myself and my men, and thank you for it.”
Magnus nodded. He gave Thyge a smile that did not reach his eyes, then spoke in a flat, cold voice. “Very well. Harald will see to your lodging. I shall have an ox butchered, and we feast tonight. Let it not be said that the hospitality of Skalmarnes is anything but generous. Erik? Attend to me in my chambers. Bring our champion along with you.”
I gulped, at that.
Erik nodded, then spoke to me. “Attend, Aelfwyn,” he said, then began to follow his father. I turned and began to follow as well, leaving the Jarlsson of Fagradalr fuming behind me.
In all my time in Skalmarnes, I’d never set foot in the Jarl’s chambers. I’d always expected them to be, I don’t know, lavish. Instead, they looked no different than Erik’s—a wooden room large enough for a bed and a couple of rough, wooden chairs. On one wall, a shield, a sword, and a Daneaxe hung displayed—not jeweled or inlaid; just worn from use. These were the only decorations.
I remembered the Jarl distributing the treasures of the village to his people and began to gain a little respect for him. This man had wealth—but he neither wasted nor flaunted it.
As Erik closed the door behind him, Magnus shed his formality. He looked at his son with an exasperated expression.
“What,” he said, growling, “in the name of Hel’s tits were you thinking?”
Erik swallowed, then looked at me, then back to his father. “I was thinking that Harald is our best warrior—and he stands no chance against Thyge Jormundsson.”
“So you put forward a girl thrall?” asked the Jarl.
“Well,” said Erik, “We had little hope of victory, save that the Gods choose to intervene. But Thyge gains no honor from butchering a serving-girl. And if the Gods do choose to intervene, no other village will ever challenge us again.”
I felt a cold shiver slither up my spine as Erik so casually dismissed the idea of me being butchered. Jarl Magnus, though, gave a wry little chuckle. “True,” he said. “Though you may be thought a coward yourself, you know. Expending a thrall when you could enter Valhalla yourself.”
Erik shook his head. “I’d prefer Valhalla wait for me, father,” he said. “And I think the Gods may surprise you on this one. Make sure the Skald is hired to watch—the song he writes might be worth more than a flock of sheep.”
Jarl Magnus snorted, then turned to me. He didn’t speak, just sized me up. I tried to see what he saw—a thrall, a slave girl. Ratty woolen dress. Dirty. Long, ruddy hair in a messy tangle. “You cannot flee,” he said to me. “If you flee, I will have you hunted. And when you are found, you will be executed by blood eagle.”
I gazed back at him, and saw the opportunity Erik had given me at last. My heart fluttered a little bit in my chest, because I knew he’d built this situation exactly for this purpose. And when I took a moment to glance at Erik, the little smile he gave me when his father spoke confirmed that thought.
“I will not flee, Jarl Magnus,” I said calmly. “If I am to die for Skalmarnes, I ask only two things. Let me die with sword in my hand, and let me not die a thrall. If you would send me to fight, send me to fight as shieldmaiden, not slave. If I can no longer have life, then I would have Valhalla.”
“Valhalla!” said the Jarl, a surprised look on his face. “I have spent many hours in conversation with your Leodbright. He has told me of your Christian religion, where you worship a man so weak as to be tortured to death. Is it not your goal to go to his ‘heaven’ a martyr?”
“What good,” I asked, “did Christ do for me when the warriors of Skalmarnes pulled their ships on the shore? What did my prayers garner me while Harald’s men killed my family and plundered their belongings? No, my Jarl. If I am to follow a God, let it be a God whose people are actually blessed. I would choose Valhalla. Let me drink mead with your ancestors, as a warrior—if I am to die for you, allow me that, at least.”
Magnus stared at me. I was glad of Leodbright’s absence—the old monk oft took to bed these days. He would not have liked my words, honest as they were. Best he did not hear them.
“On the day the hazels are set,” he said finally. “I will free you.”
“No,” said Erik. “You do not have that right.”
The Jarl blinked at Erik—and I shot my glance to him, as well. Was this not his goal? My friend had schooled his face into formality when addressing his father. I gained no idea of his intent from looking at him.
“As your father and your Jarl, I do not have the right to free my thrall?”
“She is not your thrall, my father and my Jarl. She’s my thrall, given to me by your hand, and it is I who may determine whether and when she is released.”
“And you would deny her request?” Jarl Magnus said. “You would allow her to die a thrall instead of a warrior, and prohibit her entry to Valhalla? This seems churlish, Erik.”
Erik shook his head. “You mistake me,” he said. “I choose to free her now. Give her these three days to practice with weapons; give her the best chance of victory you can. Keep her out of Thyge’s eye. He’ll underestimate her, which will give her a chance. A slim one. But a chance. Aelfwyn Shin-Kicker, I release you from your bonds. You are free.”
Jarl Magnus leaned back at that, then looked at me. “And so,” he said. “There it is. You are free—save that you are also to fight in the Holmgang tomorrow.” He reached into a small chest next to his bed, and came up with a small arm-band of silver. “So, Aelfwyn Shin-Kicker, do you swear yourself to my service upon this ring, before two witnesses?”
“I swear myself to you and your line, Jarl Magnus. My sword is yours. I pledge this before you, and before your son Erik Magnusson, as witnesses. So help me Freyr and Njörðr and the Almighty Aesir.”
Jarl Magnus nodded, then handed me the arm-band. “Good,” he says. “Fight bravely. And when you see my father in Valhalla, tell him I will be there with you in good time.”